I went into Honeyland with the understanding that it was an anthropological documentary about a solitary beekeeper in a deserted Macedonian village. But midway through, I began to suspect that maybe this was some sort of fictional realist narrative under the guise of nonfiction filmmaking.
Co-directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, working with editor Atanas Georgiev, craft such a compelling, if simple, story out of the verite footage they’ve collected that Honeyland plays less like a National Geographic doc and more like a true-false film from Iranian masters Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. You could get caught up in trying to determine what’s “true,” or you could make your own meaning from what you see on the screen. (For the record, the film’s press material identifies it as “the debut feature from documentarians Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska … shot over three years by a skeleton crew committed to an intimate collaboration between filmmakers and subject.”)
Mostly what we see is Hatidze Muratova, the fiftysomething beekeeper who tends to both her tiny, insect charges and her ailing, octogenarian mother. Always wearing the same golden shirt (so evocative of honey that it counts as costume design), Hatidze pops on the screen as she crosses the village’s dry, brown surroundings in the film’s gorgeous landscape shots. Singing to the bees, she gently but confidently reaches into the hive she’s fostered in the stone wall of her house, harvesting some—but crucially not all—of the honey. “One half for me,” she says to the buzzing cloud around her, “one half for you.”
This ecosystem is no paradise—the mother’s health is fading quickly, the two bicker at times, there’s a palpable loneliness to Hatidze’s routines—yet there is a sense of serenity and balance between humanity and the natural world that feels all but lost in this modern age. With the unexpected arrival of a raucous, itinerant family in the village—parents, seven rambunctious kids, some 150 cattle—that balance is thrown off. The moment the father, Hussein Sam, asks Hatidze how much money she gets for her honey at the market, we sense the scales beginning to tip. Sure enough, soon he has his own beekeeping operation going—scaled to proportions that the family can’t manage and the bees can’t sustain. (Indebted to an outside broker who demands more and more production, Hussein fails to leave half the honey for them.)
You could get caught up in trying to determine what’s “true,” or you could make your own meaning from what you see on the screen.
Nimbly and unassumingly, this relatively straightforward anthropological study blossoms into both a socioeconomic commentary on the dangers of globalization and a biblically resonant parable about our relationship with the environment. When you see Hussein’s little children wandering about with eyes swollen from bee stings, or calves falling dead because no one bothered to feed them, you think not only of the plagues of Egypt, but also of humankind’s earlier failure in the Garden of Eden. In Honeyland, Hatidze’s echo of paradise is most certainly lost.
Perhaps this is why the most arresting imagery comes early on, before Hussein’s family arrives kicking up dust with their animals and trucks. I think of an early shot of Hatidze sitting next to her mother in their dark, one-room home: she’s gently lit, in her golden shirt, on the left hand of the screen, while her mother, wearing gray, is nearly lost in shadow on the right. Or a close-up of a bee struggling in a pool of water; finally able to grasp a leaning leaf, it heroically climbs out. There is even some visual humor, as when Hatidze curiously watches the family’s arrival from behind the rock walls of her courtyard, her bright, scarved head poking up amidst the stones like a prairie dog on alert.
Honeyland may sadly chart a Fall, both local and existential, but it eventually finds its way to restoration of a sort. Hatidze’s rhythms have undoubtedly changed, in painful ways, but she’s also regained her equilibrium in the film’s final moments. Patient, observant, and intricately crafted, Honeyland arrives at a place that not only feels natural, but spiritual as well.